Dahlia Walker-Huntington | Petrojam and the diaspora
In light of the fallout of the Petrojam scandal, one of the issues that have surfaced is using members of the diaspora to serve on government boards. This is action that Jamaicans overseas have been openly calling for as a mechanism for them to engage more effectively with Jamaica.
The relationship between Jamaicans living at home and those living abroad is sometimes rocky - not unlike other familial relationships. Sometimes you get along and other times you are at loggerheads. Many Jamaicans in the diaspora, whether engaged at a government level or familially, often complain that we are taken for granted. One of the chief complaints is that we are only seen as a source of revenue for Jamaica, whether it be remittances, investments or donations to non-profits, without any respect.
The reality is that the majority of Jamaicans living overseas are so grateful for their foundations in Jamaica that they gladly give back financially to Jamaica, whether directly to family, to their schools or some other group that can help to uplift the people of Jamaica.
In Florida alone, there are more than 50 Jamaican alumni associations and over 50 other Jamaican non-profit organisations that constantly raise hundreds of thousands of US dollars to support Jamaicans and Jamaican institutions on the island. The members of these organisations, day after day and year after year, centre their lives around contributing to the Jamaican people. Are any of the founders and/or leaders of these organisations named to any government board or that of any private-sector Jamaican company?
The other complaint is that when the Government (both Jamaica Labour Party and People's National Party) seeks overseas experts, they hire non-Jamaicans, but when it wants unpaid experts, the State looks to the diaspora. Since the inaugural Biannual Jamaican Diaspora Conference in June 2004, successive governments have been told that this is a practice that should be addressed.
At that inaugural conference, a Jamaican Diaspora Advisory Board was established to advise the minister of foreign affairs on issues of concern to the diaspora - yet the practice continues. Or when there is someone in the diaspora who is linked as a paid expert, it is not necessarily a skilled person but more likely someone with ties to the ruling party. The repeated suggestion has been to organise a diaspora skills bank where those interested in offering themselves for paid positions can demonstrate that they, in fact, have the skills required and be considered.
Consecutive Jamaican prime ministers, ministers of government, and members of the private sector routinely come to the diaspora and implore us to invest financially in Jamaica as if they are the first to herald that call. They do so without taking any note and subsequent action on areas such as the difficulty of doing business in Jamaica. Simply opening a bank account in Jamaica continues to be a tedious and off-putting endeavour.
A few weeks ago, Minister Pearnel Charles Jr, in his new role as minister of state in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs & Foreign Trade, at a function in the NE United States made the latest appeal for Jamaicans overseas to invest in Jamaica. Prime Minister Andrew Holness, in May of this year at the launch of a design competition for the new Houses of Parliament, said he would be reaching out to the diaspora to help finance the new building.
I am not one who calls for the diaspora to vote in Jamaican elections, because I do not think it practical. First, the electoral system in Jamaica requires a constituency residency in order to cast a vote for your member of parliament. Second, the size of the diaspora could lead to those living outside the country swinging an election and not living with the consequences.
Third, other countries that allow their nationals to vote in their elections also have certain responsibilities that they impose on their nationals, e.g., they must possess a passport and they must pay income taxes on their overseas earnings.
While many of us continue to invest in Jamaica and her people, where is the respect and reciprocity to Jamaicans in the diaspora by the Government and private sector? A Biannual Conference where successive governments and titans of industry roll out their plea for investment does not rise to the level of effective engagement. To study and engage the diaspora requires liaising with nationals who not only live overseas, but who know the community.
Deeper engagement and respect can be reached between Jamaican and her diaspora by appointing qualified expatriates to government boards and by private-sector companies appointing members of the diaspora to serve on their boards. This process must be handled with transparency and accountability, and not with 'bandooloo'. If it is not legal to do so now, address the issue with a view to resolution and accommodation. There are thousands of Jamaicans living overseas with the education, experience and willingness to serve.
- Dahlia A. Walker-Huntington is a Jamaican-American attorney who practises immigration law in the United States and family, criminal and personal-injury law in Florida.